This Is England is a semi-autobiographical film from writer and director Shane Meadows about a young boy growing up in Thatcher´s Britain who gets adopted by a gang of skinheads. Set in a dreary coastal English town the film gives an intelligent and considered portrayal of the skinhead sub-culture popular in the eighties. Despite the serious subject matter and grittiness evident here there is also a strong sense of honesty and optimism.
The central character is 12 year-old Shaun and the movie focuses on his struggle to come to terms with the death of his father in the Falklands war. While his mother tries to hold family life together Shaun is being bullied at school and lacks a good friend. After getting into a fight Shaun is walking home through an underpass and strikes up a conversation with a group of skinheads who are encamped there. Woody is the leader of this band of misfits and he takes Shaun under his wing immediately. Woody´s skinheads are serious about the fashion, they enjoy getting drunk and they engage in the odd bit of mindless vandalism but for the most part they are harmless and Shaun gratefully slots into their group even managing to pull one of the much older girls that hangs around with them. Things change however when old friend Combo gets out of prison and begins to inflict his psychotic views on the gang, suddenly everything takes a nasty turn.
The England of 1983 is perfectly captured here with historical footage inter-spliced with the action adding to the authentic atmosphere. The script and direction are both very good and the film features a fantastic cast of characters that develop throughout the convincing story.
The best performance undoubtedly comes from the young Thomas Turgoose as Shaun. Turgoose is a genuinely disadvantaged kid from Grimsby who grew up in a deprived area and was excluded from school and he has an authentic cheeky belligerence about him which fits the character perfectly. Stephen Graham, one of the few familiar faces in the film also gave a great performance as Combo and Joseph Gilgun was excellent as the nice guy skinhead, Woody, who is reluctant to take things too far.
When Combo returns the gang splits into two groups and Shaun makes a dangerous choice which leads to his involvement in the darker side of skinhead culture. Combo is a deeply unhappy and resentful man and he sees something of himself in Shaun, unfortunately he is a terrible replacement father figure and its obvious things aren´t going to end well.
Meadows portrays the skinhead culture fondly, we are reminded of their humour and sense of fun, we are reminded that some of them didn´t hold strong racist views and that the fashion and ska soundtrack were enough for them. The characters are fleshed out and the film avoids any caricatures even sympathising heavily with Combo who has been sucked into the National Front and is a violent tempered nutcase who believes the rubbish he has been fed because it gives him someone to blame, someone he can actively target. While some may balk at this treatment of what has become a very ugly movement Meadows is careful not to glamorise the nastier side.
The authenticity, the acting performances, the funny, sharp dialogue and the tight direction all combine to make this a hugely enjoyable nostalgic film which deserves a big audience.